Clash on Iraq Could Be McCain-Obama Preview

By Michael D. Shear and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 28, 2008

TYLER, Tex., Feb. 27 -- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) accused Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) of making ill-informed comments about Iraq and al-Qaeda in Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate, signaling that a general-election brawl between the colleagues would center in part on who has the foreign policy experience to lead a country at war.

Despite McCain's war-hero status and years of foreign policy experience, Obama made it clear that he will not back down from such a fight, issuing a quick rebuke of McCain that linked him to President Bush and the war in Iraq.

The spat began when McCain seized on a comment by Obama that he would reserve the right to return to Iraq after withdrawing troops "if al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq."

"I have some news," McCain told voters at a rally here Wednesday morning. "Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. Al-Qaeda is called 'al-Qaeda in Iraq.' My friends, if we left, they wouldn't be establishing a base. . . . they would be taking a country. I will not allow that to happen, my friends. I will not surrender."

McCain has pledged to keep U.S. forces in Iraq as long as it takes to create stability, form a unified government and defeat terrorist groups. He favors adding more troops, if necessary, to achieve those goals.

Obama, who opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has said that there is no military solution to the conflict and that he would start bringing troops home after becoming president to force Iraqi factions to resolve their differences. Obama said he would withdraw about one to two combat brigades a month, with the goal of having all of them out within 16 months.

For McCain, the decision to pick a fight with Obama helps keep the presumptive GOP nominee from being overshadowed by the battle between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for the Democratic presidential nomination. It also gives him a chance to undermine confidence in Obama's foreign policy experience before the Democrat can turn full attention to the general election.

But even as he focuses on a potentially decisive showdown with Clinton in four contests next Tuesday, Obama has made it clear he won't ignore the attacks from McCain. Generating headlines about an Obama-McCain showdown could also benefit Obama by creating the sense among Democratic primary voters that he is on the verge of becoming their party's nominee and also that he can hold his own against the Republicans.

Speaking to 7,000 voters at Ohio State University on Wednesday, Obama answered McCain's mocking tone with his own.

"McCain thought that he could make a clever point by saying, 'Well let me give you some news, Barack, al-Qaeda is in Iraq.' Like I wasn't reading the papers, like I didn't know what was going on. I said, 'Well, first of all, I do know that al-Qaeda is in Iraq; that's why I've said we should continue to strike al-Qaeda targets.

"I have some news for John McCain, and that is that there was no such thing as al-Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq." The crowd roared its approval. "I've got some news for John McCain. He took us into a war along with George Bush that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged. They took their eye off the people who were responsible for 9/11, and that would be al-Qaeda in Afghanistan that is stronger now than at any time since 2001.

"So John McCain may like to say he wants to follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, but so far all he's done is follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq that's cost us thousands of lives and billions of dollars."

The exchange between McCain and Obama began when the senator from Illinois answered a question by debate moderator Tim Russert, who posed the hypothetical situation of a return to Iraq by al-Qaeda after the United States withdraws troops. Obama said the United States would have to return in that case.

"As commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests," Obama said in the debate. "And if al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad."

McCain seized on those words, saying they showed a lack of understanding of the terrorist group's activities in the country.

The Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq was formed in response to the U.S. presence in Iraq. The U.S. military thinks that the group's activities -- such as large-scale car bombings of Shiite gathering places -- peaked in 2006 and that American forces destroyed much of the organization in a series of raids last year.

The group is "frustrated" but "not defeated," Maj. Gen. Jeffrey W. Hammond, commander of the 4th Infantry Division, said in an interview last month. U.S. officials say that coalition forces have pushed the group largely out of Baghdad and Anbar province, but that it remains active in the upper Tigris River valley.

McCain's attack on Obama's answer is the latest attempt by the Republican to cast Obama as inexperienced on foreign policy. Several months ago, McCain criticized Obama for suggesting that he would bomb al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan without that country's approval.

"The best idea is to not broadcast what you are going to do. That's naive," McCain said earlier this month. "You make plans and you work with the other country that is your ally and friend, which Pakistan is. You don't broadcast and say you are going to bomb the country without their permission or without consulting them. This is the fundamentals of the conduct of national security policy."

Murray reported from Ohio. Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington contributed to this report.

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